As Ana and Dusty and Harley worked their way across the Ground Zero rubble piles, I was still in
The SDF was used to a few mailed-in donations a month. It didn’t take more than a day or two for our understaffed and overstretched office to become swamped. We didn’t have a robust computer system at the time, so everything was done by hand and voice. What we needed above all else was more phone lines. I tasked a volunteer to get more installed and quickly received a message the phone company couldn’t install them until next week.
“Give me the phone guy’s number,” I said. Our country had just been attacked and fellow Americans were trusting the SDF to take their support seriously. I was in no mood for waiting patiently. When I got the phone guy on the line I bombarded him. “Do you see those dogs on television searching Ground Zero? Those dogs are from our foundation in our hometown! They need our support, and we need more phone lines right now. I would say today, but I don’t want to sound unreasonable.”
The phones were in the next day.
OUT EAST, THE large tank of a dog, Sherman “The Shermanator,” arrived at Ground Zero with California Task Force 1, not far behind the Three Rs and the Sacramento Task Force. Because the rest of his teammates had been stranded in Seattle, Sherman and his handler, Steve, were on their own at first. But to a dog that willingly smashes plate glass windows, fear has little meaning. Sherman plowed over the stacks of steel with no apprehension whatsoever. The massive Lab put every ounce of his energy into searching. Steve was always worried Sherman would unintentionally hurt himself. On one search, Sherman was marauding across the steel in his usual take-no-prisoners manner, not slowing or pausing or exhibiting any type of caution. Rain from the night before had made things slick, and the steel was dangerous. Steve wanted to get control of Sherman before the dog crashed. As Steve moved to get closer, he slipped and fell, smacking his leg. Steve stood up and dusted himself off, contemplating the irony. Sherman, on the other hand, didn’t even blink and went right on searching. He knew his job and he let nothing distract him.
Despite his all-business attitude on the pile, Sherman was quick to make friends. Firefighters and other rescue workers on the day shift were always petting him and using his big frame as a buoy while they crossed the debris. Sherman, ever a gentle giant, never grew tired of it. He seemed to understand everybody needed support right now.
IN THE FOLLOWING days, as they waited for search assignments, Ana and Dusty would rest as Rick and Randy accompanied the reconnaissance team across Ground Zero. Sometimes they’d be joined by FDNY Firefighters. They would walk for hours through the destruction. Block after block, windows were blown out and walls were pocked with holes and charred scars. Any trees left standing had been stripped of leaves; now only tiny scraps of shredded paper hung in their branches like morbid ornaments. Thick dust coated everything. The firefighters felt like an infantry platoon patrolling across a war-torn Europe in World War II. They would pass other firefighters, just standing disconsolately, shell-shocked, as they tried to piece together what had happened. Others were near collapse with exhaustion and grief, having lost countless brothers in an instant, yet refusing to rest.
Rick remembers going through an alleyway not far from their BOO whose wall was completely covered in missing-persons photographs. An entire wall of silent faces looking out at the rescuers, notes from loved ones scrawled along the edges, pleading for information about the missing individual.
The search teams found FDNY fire engines, abandoned and silent. Some had been crushed beyond recognition. Others were unharmed, save for a thick layer of dust. Rick and Randy passed one such engine still in its staging position and undamaged, having been shielded from the collapse by one of the nearby high-rises. There were messages scrawled in the layer of dust on the windows from other firefighters. “God Bless,” one message read. As they passed the engine, their FDNY escort broke from the recon team and trudged over to the engine. He opened the engine’s door and looked inside at the crew tag, which listed the engine’s crew members. He stood still for a minute, holding the door and reading the names. Then he shut it. Dust billowed off in a small cloud. He returned to the team, his face stiff with a tortured agony. “They’re all dead,” he said. The group continued in silence. Behind them, the trucks hauling debris rumbled on.